"We have met the enemy and they are us" -- Pogo Possum

 

The latest episode of The Walking Dead had me thinking about the line above, perhaps the most famous quote from Walt Kelly's long-running comic strip, Pogo. It reminded me of a thought that occasionally flits across my frontal lobe about how so many of our iconic monsters seem to represent the threat not just of death, but also -- and maybe moreso -- turning Us into Them. If you squint just right, it seems to suggest that what we're most afraid of is ourselves.

 

Vampires. Werewolves. Zombies. All of them turn Us into Them, turn friend into foe, turn our numbers against us. Yes, death is an element as well -- you have to die to become a vampire or zombie, and being torn to ribbons is the first, immediate danger of lyncanthropy. But, tellingly, you don't die to become a werewolf, and we're still afraid of that. Jekyll/Hyde dispensed with "the other" altogether and kept it in the (homo sapiens) family -- Hyde is the animal (and the enemy) within. If we want to stretch the concept further, we can include Frankenstein's Monster and The Mummy; the former is made up of fellow humans (albeit dead ones) and the latter is a human, or was. You'll note that The Mummy isn't a super-power resurrected animal of any kind. Because it isn't animals we're afraid of, werewolves notwithstanding. No, once again it's US that is the enemy, or potentially so.

 

One aspect of these monsters that's so frightening is that they look familiar, but don't act in a familiar manner. Your former friend is now a zombie, say, and while he looks like your friend (mostly), his behavior and priorities have changed radically. He's joined another team, and become a stranger. He wants to kill you, or worse, make you join his tribe. It's not really a stretch to substitute "John became a flesh-eating zombie" with "John joined a different church/worships a different God." It's the familiar turned un-familiar -- and the threat to make you do the same -- which frightens us. 

 

Maybe it's that last part that is what is most frightening, the transformation of Us into Them. Maybe this is all just a huge metaphor for our fear of betrayal by our friends, of being victimized by other humans, and/or being too weak to live up to our own principles and becoming a betrayer, a monster, ourselves. It seems to me that one of our great fears is that we're not as strong in our faiths, creeds and beliefs as we'd like to believe. Many people grow most angry in a political discussion when the other guy's points begin to make sense.

 

We have actual industries in place to reverse these transformations. We have "de-programmers," for example, that kidnap family members who've joined a cult and essentially brainwash them into being like they used to be. That kinda creeps me out, too, and not just because it suggests how programmable -- how malleable and potentially transformational -- we all are. It's also because virtually all major religions were considered cults when they began, and only lost that tag when they became large enough to be institutional. In other words, from a classification perspective, all religions are cults until they become popular.

 

So who's to say we're right and they're wrong? As an illustrative example, I daresay we'd all be outraged if a de-programmer kidnapped a Southern Baptist and brainwashed him or her into becoming, say, Catholic. But what about an unpopular religion? What about a Hare Krishna? A polygamist Mormon? A Muslim? (It's now the second-most populous religion on Earth, but I bet a lot of Christian parents would gladly pay a de-programmer to "fix" a child who joined Islam -- and probably many of their neighbors, and the police, would look the other way.) What's the cutoff point where we say, "Oh, OK, that religion is all right. But those other ones have got to go."? Food for thought.

 

Another example of an anti-transformational industry, I believe, are the so-called "pray away the gay" groups. Your son or daughter comes out? Changes before your eyes into a "stranger"? Drag them to a religious-oriented programmer, who transforms them back into what you want. Evidently the "transformation" scares some parents, and even some gays, and they want to change it back. The parents long for their world before the transformation, like Rick & Co. in The Walking Dead, and struggle to re-establish it.

 

Speaking of The Walking Dead, creator Robert Kirkman has consistently maintained that the title refers to the surivivors, not the zombies. His intent is to explore what honest, decent people turn into when forced to do terrible things to survive. Ultimately, I assume, he will confront us with the question of who the monsters really are.

 

So there again we have the fear of transformation, of people becoming monsters, twice over. What does this say about us as a species? Does it mean that, despite hopeful fictional future utopias like Star Trek, that deep in our hearts we fear our lesser instincts will win out? Or is it a conservative impluse, of preserving the status quo and never changing? Or is it a fear of the stranger, of the unknown he or she represents? Or is it simply a tribal thing in our lizard brains, where we demand loyalty to our tribe, and what we hate most is those who join the other team? Or is it some sort of species-wide form of self-loathing? Or is it bigotry, a need to define others as something lesser so we can feel superior?  Or is it all of these? Or a combination? Or something else?

 

To tell you the truth, I don't know. I have questions, not answers. What do you guys think?

Views: 248

Comment by Luke Blanchard on November 13, 2011 at 3:59pm

I think we have various fears, and horror movies can plug into more than one of them at a time.

 

I was afraid of vampires as a kid, but I don't think I was afraid of becoming a vampire, just afraid of being killed. (I knew vampires were supposed to not exist, but I didn't believe this emotionally at night.) I don't recall ever thinking about what it might be like to be a vampire. I can't recall if I was afraid of one of my family members becoming a vampire.

 

I think what makes this latter notion scary is the notion of simultaneously losing the loved one and finding the person transformed into a monster trying to prey on us. Someone frightened by the notion of becoming a vampire or zombie would likely either to see the transformation as representing the death of the self, or as the self's loss of its humanity.

 

I think you've missed a point about cults. Some religious groups cut their members off from the world outside the cult, including their former friends and family. I understand there have also been Marxist groups that did this. I don't know how successful deprogrammers actually are at getting people to break with cults, but if they do have success it could be partly due to simply taking people out of this atmosphere and confronting them with the unreasonableness of ways of thinking cultivated within the cult. It doesn't follow that the same methods could convert a Southern Baptist into a Roman Catholic.

Comment by Captain Comics on November 13, 2011 at 5:46pm

I don't think it would work either, Luke. I was just raising the issue of bigotry -- of when we feel doing something like that is OK (an unpopular belief system), and when we don't (a popular one). Bigotry is one possible aspect of this phenomenon that I suggest later, and I was setting that up. But perhaps it was a digression, and perhaps I should have left it out.

 

As to "the death of self, or as the self's loss of humanity," that's pretty much what the whole essay was driving at -- that our monsters don't just threaten us with death, they threaten us also with the death -- the transformation -- of self. My question is, why is that so important? Isn't death final enough? Why is this other aspect present, and how can it be as frightening or more frightening than simply dying?

 

I agree with you that I wasn't afraid of turning into a vampire as a kid, but then again, I wasn't afraid of vampires at all. They had so many silly weaknesses (silver, mirrors, running water, crosses, daylight, dropping mustard seeds on a path) that I was fairly confident that if I ever met one, I could beat it. 

 

But I see your point that transformation wasn't a fear you had.  To tell you the truth, until I was old enough to understand concepts like that, I wasn't very worried about it either. So I ask again: Why do so many of our monsters not only have the capacity to kill us, but also to recruit us? It's so prevalent I have to believe it scares something atavistic in our lizard brain.

Comment by Luke Blanchard on November 14, 2011 at 2:25am

 

I think Hammer-type vampires fall in the uncanny valley. In fangs mode they're mostly human but obviously motivated by inhuman/animalistic drives.

 

According to Ken Begg of Jabootu (here) significant elements of what we consider werewolf lore were really created for Universal's films The Werewolf of London and The Wolf Man. Wikipedia's page "Werewolf" (which has some interesting images of woodcuts) says that the notion that lycanthropy is spread by biting "is not part of the original myths and legends and only appears in relatively recent beliefs". It also notes that where some places have werewolf legends, others have similar legends involving other kinds of predators. An older book on werewolf traditions is The Book of Were-Wolves by Sabine Baring-Gould (1865), which can be found online.

 

In the book Vampires, Burial, and Death Paul Barber argues that reports of bodies being exhumed and yielding evidence of vampirism can be explained in terms of the processes of decomposition. I think he also connects elements of vampire legends to decomposition.

 

I read a review of a couple of vampire-related books earlier this year that, following one or both of the works, emphasised how recent modern images of vampires are. (I think one of the books was From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth by Matthew Beresford.) I believe the image of the aristocratic vampire goes back to John Polidori's story "The Vampyre" (1819). Fanged vampires in movies go back to Hammer's Horror of Dracula (1958).

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on November 17, 2011 at 11:22am

Allow me to direct your attention to Jim Twitchell’s book Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror in which he discusses the differences between horror and terror. [Twitchell is (or was) Alumni Professor of English at the University of Florida.] In it, he traces the meaning of the word “horror” back to the Latin horrere which means “to bristle,” as hair standing on end or the feeling of creeping flesh (more commonly referred to as the “creeps”). “At the height of horror,” Twitchell maintains, “we must scream or the tension, the pressure inside us, will cause us to go insane!”

“Terror,” he continues, “as differentiated from horror, must start anew each generation, not because the objects we fear are so changeable, but because the images of them are. We now don’t fear space invaders; we fear what we might bring back from space. A generation from now there will be a different ‘terror in the aisles.’ But horror is different. We will keep returning to watch the werewolf, transform, or the vampire bite the virgin, of Dr. Frankenstein experiment in the laboratory, or Dr. Jekyll meet Mr. Hyde, and we will probably continue this interest until we resolve whatever it is in these myths that is unresolved within ourselves… If we see a victim being stalked by an ax-murderer with the requisite cleaver in hand, our sensation will be terror; but let that murderer be a zombie, a vampire, a werewolf, or anything akin, and ourt response is horror.”

I brought home the first two volumes in the “Harvey Horrors” series last week, Tracy literally hugged them to her and declared, “These are mine!” (By now you should have the information to order the first volumes yourself if you are interested.) Yesterday, Bob Powell’s Terror shipped. That’s next on my list, then Tracy and I are going to switch. We’re going to have to agree to disagree about the relative merits of the first volume in the series, Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein, but I’ll respond to that in the discussion you started in the main discussion forum.

Comment by Captain Comics on November 17, 2011 at 12:39pm

Interesting distinction between horror and terror, Jeff -- I guess I'll have to read that book!

 

As to Harvey Horrors, I've got enough on my plate right now until the semester ends. If those books aren't available on Amazon by then, I'll probably order via the method you sent me. In the meantime, I think I'm looking forward to the semester being over more than any of my students!

Comment by The Baron on November 17, 2011 at 4:51pm

I think a loss of control is scarier for some folks than death itself. I suspect that for some folks there is the more or less secret fear that they might like becoming a monster.

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on November 17, 2011 at 5:49pm

I apologize for any points which may have been lost or any changes of meaning which may have resulted from from my abbreviation of his text.

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